Friday, 27 December 2013

13 highlights of 2013 and 14 new resolutions

I have been putting off doing this as I felt that when I looked back at my resolutions from last year, it would make me feel a miserable failure. Actually, I'm pretty chuffed I've actually managed more than one of them! However, we will ignore the first 4/5 ;)

1. Lose the stone

It's Christmas!

2. Spend more time with family

Still a bad person.

3. Blog more

Rubbish! I have really neglected this, but maybe next year?

4. Work more with other teachers

Still need to work on this. I'm naturally an introvert, so it is hard to shake off the belief that I work far more efficiently by myself.

5. Survive GCSE fiasco

My classes did well. I am particularly proud of an SEN student who got his C on his third attempt in June after switching to iGCSE and doing coursework. School did not survive though...

6. Holidays

We had a glorious week in France with private pool. Not nearly as expensive as it sounds and with added bat aerial display every evening!

7. Stop imagining, start doing (and finishing)
See 8

8. Remodel my lounge
After 14 years of staring at artex on the chimney breasts and a hideous brick fireplace that extended the length of 2 rooms, I took a sledge hammer to it. Following further applications of drill, hammer, screwdriver, saw (and, yes, No More Nails), I now have a calm little retreat to come home to with a log burner. We have had a real fire every night since September!

9. Art projects

See 8. That kept me busy enough - my shelving unit is made from wine crates, I finally got my artwork up on the walls, and my boyfriend gave me a make your own muppet kit for Christmas!

10. Get on top of marking

Not sure this is possible, but I have approached marking very differently this year. Instead of taking it for an endless series of walks (to the car, from the car to the house, back to the car, to school, back to the car, back home, repeat) I now see it as fundamental to planning the next lesson, rather than a tiresome chore. It makes a difference. Also, I make sure that my classes spend at least a lesson responding to comments after each main assessment. If you doubt this approach, you clearly managed to miss Austin's Butterfly! Go watch it now!

I haven't yet managed to find a way to stop the cat chewing it though!

11. Avoid doing graded observations

Managed this so far... Clock is ticking though...

12. Do an MA

No longer see the point. It won't improve my teaching, probably the opposite as it will take up so much time.

13. Make more 'Feel good Friday' phone-calls

This is still on the list!

To make up the difference, other things I'm proud of from 2013:

Managing to get a (very) good when Ofsted came in to do a hatchet job on our school.
Apparently it isn't possible to get an outstanding judgment with Y13 when current progress at KS3 is inadequate. I also managed to achieve this whilst being interrogated about KS3 during the observed lesson!

Despite the enormous destructive power of Ofsted's visit, it has given me the opportunity to redesign the KS3 English curriculum. And where do you turn for inspiration? Twitter of course! Not only am I really enthusiastic about the new approach, but I have planned 60 lessons for 7, 8 and 9 in the last couple of weeks. I will blog about this soon, and thank people who currently don't know how inspirational they have been.

I have started working on a whole-school writing project too. More of this to come.

The final highlight of my year is yet again my boyfriend, who miraculously is still with me, despite me putting him through a truly vicious Ofsted and the fallout!

14 resolutions for 2014:

1. Help get school out of the crap.
2. Not to crumble under pressure of time and stick to what I know works.
3. Finish KS3 schemes and create an exciting and innovative curriculum that both students and staff enjoy.
4. Improve writing whole school.
5. Work with other teachers more effectively.
6. Keep healthy and sane (although both of those are debatable at the moment!)
7. Thank people I've never met who inspire me on Twitter (long overdue).
8. Blog more and share ideas.
9. Sort out the garden.
10. Sell all the jewellery I've made before it takes over the house!
11. Clear out the shed - does anyone know anything you can do with video tapes other than landfill?!
12. Do more exercise (shouldn't be hard, just have to do some exercise).
13. Cuddle the cats more.
14. Cuddle the BF more.

Friday, 23 August 2013

The results are in - Cambridge iGCSE vs AQA

If you read my previous blog entry on teaching the Cambridge iGCSE, you will know that I refused to pass judgement until the results came in. Well, they're in.

The background:
This year I taught a set of 32 Y11 A*- B target students who took AQA Language and Literature, a set of 16 Y11 C/D borderline students who started AQA in Y10, but changed to iGCSE in Y11, and 2 Y10 sets of 16 students with targets of C/D who did early entry iGCSE this year too.

Yes, I struggled to get my head around that too - thank you timetable gods!
What it did do, however, is put me in a position to look at the 2 exams side by side and draw some fairly interesting conclusions (at least I think they are interesting, feel free to disagree!)

My 'top' set did reasonably well on AQA, but the top grades were fewer than I had predicted. Overall, I am a bit disappointed as I was hopeful they would do much better. A handful got Cs which, in my opinion, does not reflect their ability. Basically, our Language CA was moderated down by 4 marks across the board for every student over a C. I have not read the report, but our marks have never been changed before and it obviously looks a bit suspicious to me. I may be wrong, but it is a less obvious way of manipulating the pass rate than changing exam boundaries. The Literature CA grades were unchanged...

So to iGCSE. Here the results were great. In Y11, bearing in mind these students had failed miserably AQA English and iGCSE Core earlier in the year, they nearly all passed iGCSE Extended. There were even 3 B grades!

In Y10, the results were less spectacular. There were more passes than I had predicted though, but only a handful in each group. Pleasing for me, it was those particularly hardworking students who got it early and the others have hopefully learned a valuable lesson. Honestly, I never felt they were ready to do it, the vast majority are the kind of kids who need to feel the pressure of the clock ticking in Y11 to motivate them. Those who got Cs are probably capable of Bs next year, so I'm not sure they gained much either, apart from maybe a confidence boost.

IGCSE is easier for the majority of students. The students who got Bs are proof of that. They are nowhere near the quality of the Bs from AQA, or even the C grades from my top set either. Students who failed AQA English passed iGCSE comfortably. It is particularly good for students who are sparky but have done nothing for 5 years and feel the fear at the last minute. The reading exam is something you can train them to do like monkeys. The results would also suggest that it is easier to get a C on the Extended paper than on the Core.

Another advantage of iGCSE is for SEN students. One particular student I taught was very hardworking, but all the extra time in the world was not going to help him pass an exam. He was able to do the coursework option, take his time, use IT, redraft. He finally got his C after getting a B on that unit, and it was my favourite result of yesterday.

And, of course, the Speaking and Listening was also very useful for several students in boosting their grade. However, I would also say it probably caused a significant problem for just as many. How we go about teaching this aspect is something we have to look at very carefully next year. They don't get multiple chances to do it, reflect and improve like AQA used to allow, and it shows.

Personally, I am left feeling dissatisfied with the whole thing. Just like last year, I feel there are students who have grades they don't deserve (both higher and lower) down to the exam they took. Our entry requirement for A Level study is a B at GCSE. There are students who have that from iGCSE who have that now, but are in no way prepared for the demands of A level; iGCSE does not encourage independence in any way shape or form. They don't have to read anything longer than 5 paragraphs for a start!

I realise my job is to get students good grades, and improve their life chances, but my reason for teaching is to foster a love of reading, writing, discussion and critical thinking. I want students to leave with skills, not just grades. Teaching the iGCSE exam is DULL. The texts they use are awful - the whole exam is very old-fashioned.

With another 3 groups taking it next year, I am not feeling terribly inspired by it.
Thank God they still have to do Literature... although, of course, they don't have to pass.

Monday, 1 July 2013

A special day

It's very easy to forget that our students have personal lives, just as they forget we have one too. Today I'm glad I remembered.

Let's call him Sam. A bright, sparky chap, but one who is lazy and prefers to talk rather than write; will find distractions rather than concentrate. Today he was lost in a daydream that just struck me as a little out of character. I left him alone to wake up for a few minutes (it was Period 1 after all) but then waded in.

'Are you alright, Sam?'

'Yeah, Miss.'

'Well, it's just you haven't done any work yet, what's the problem?'

Expecting the usual don't understand/ don't know what to do excuse, I was quite surprised with the, 'I lost someone, Miss', that I actually got.

So I told him how sorry I was, and then I told him about my stress bucket philosophy: I find it extremely useful to have a school bucket and a home bucket. When crappy things are happening at home, I don't let them add to my school stress bucket. When crappy things are happening at school, I don't let them add to my home stress bucket. If you just have one bucket, it has a habit of over-flowing.

Sam nodded and then said, 'She died of breast cancer'.

I was floored momentarily, but managed to regroup. This is something I can relate to. One of my best friends died at the age of 33 from cancer. It started as breast cancer, but spread to her liver, lungs and brain. She was a (brilliant) Head of Year at the school I still work at.

'Do you see that tree out there?' I asked, pointing out of the window, ' Well that was planted in memory of one of my friends who died of cancer. It was the point at which my home and school buckets were very hard to keep separate, but I managed to keep it together.'

He nodded, so I carried on.

'And one of the things that held me together is that I believe in immortality. I'm not religious, but I do believe that everyone you meet has an effect on you. What they say and do lives on in you; your memories of them in a way make them immortal. If they affect you and you affect someone else, then they kind of go on living.'
He continued to look at me solemnly.

'I guess all you can do is make them proud. It's one of the reasons I'm a teacher. I think that you can pass on all the amazing things other people have taught you.'

He didn't say anything, but he picked up his pen and wrote for the whole of the rest of the lesson. He even wanted to stay on to finish his work at break.

Today was one of my best days ever as a teacher.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

iGCSE -decide for yourself

Job done. Breathe.

Yesterday saw the last exam for the Cambridge iGCSE and the completion of a huge shift in focus this year for our English Department.

We really struggled to find help and advice from people who had done the exam before, so I thought this might prove helpful to those considering the move.

Firstly, your most important question answered:

Yes, the Cambridge English (First Language) iGCSE does count in your A*-C figures.

Second question:

Yes, you do have to do Literature as well, but it does not have to be the same board and they don't have to pass. We stuck with AQA for Lit. this year.

The course has slightly confusing options, but goes like this:

Speaking and Listening: Presentation and Discussion
Reading exam: Core (like Foundation) or Extended (like Higher)
Writing exam (same for everyone) OR 3 pieces of coursework.

As I understand it, iGCSE will have Speaking and Listening as a component until 2015 despite the changes to normal GCSE English.


Students have to give a 4 minute presentation on a topic of their choice. This is followed by a discussion which leads on from their presentation for 5-6 minutes.

Most of our kids are confident speakers (opinionated!) and have always done well on S&L. It is also a skill employers really value. Removing it from GCSE (especially mid-course) is stupid and unfair. The assessment is one to one, not in front of a class, which helps those of a nervous disposition.

All the students need to be recorded (which does not help those of a nervous disposition). You need to allow 15 mins per student. Do the maths. If you are entering 200 students, then that is 50 hours. Then you need to allow time for moderation if more than one person does it. Also allow for those who forget to turn up, those who 'forget', those who are sick, and those who are 'sick'. Oh yeah... and breaks for the interviewer! Someone really needs to be off timetable for around 3 weeks to be able to do it. We had one teacher and our trusty Faculty Support doing it over a fortnight. The cover also has to be a consideration, and you will need your whole school behind you as kids will be out of other subjects. Basically, it is not an aspect of the course designed to make life easy for large centres.

It is also extremely stressful for those leading it. For one thing, they will be having discussions about everything important to teenagers from football to divorce, from football to knife crime, and from football to eating disorders. Seriously, some of the discussions were quite upsetting, one even ended in tears.

READING EXAM (with a few marks for writing)

We have entered students for both the Core paper and the Extended.

They tell you the Core paper has 2 questions, based on reading non-fiction style texts, but it is actually a series of lots of short questions worth a couple of marks each (1a, 1b, 1c, etc.). It is a doddle. The skill level required does not go above inference and most of it is retrieval. They have to summarise too, a skill we had not ever taught before, but not exactly a challenging one. It is capped at a C. There is no analysis or comparison required.

Oddly, the Extended paper may be even easier to pass than the Core! There are 3 questions based on 2 texts. For the first one they have to read Text A
and rewrite it from a different perspective. The second asks you about Language in two paragraphs of Text A (but you can just do a PEE chart, not paragraphs) and the last one asks you to summarise part of Text A and Text B. Again, no comparison required. It covers the range A*-E.

If teaching hoop jumping is your thing then this exam is your dream come true.

Our middle ability really struggled to finish the paper in 2 hours, something I found very surprising. Some of the vocabulary in the texts is very challenging, but then they can always choose something else to write about if they don't understand something!
The pass mark on both papers has been very low in previous years. 34 out of 50 would get you an A. My AQA D graders have been getting Bs in mocks. I don't see how that can be maintained with the number of schools shifting over to iGCSE if the pass rate has to be maintained nationally. I fully expect another shift in the grade boundaries this year. There was a 10 mark shift overall in November.

WRITING EXAM (with a few marks for reading)

The same for everyone. Question 1 asks students to read the source material and convert it into something else (very similar to Qu 1 on the Extended paper). Question 2 is one from a choice of 6 - two argumentative / discursive, two descriptive, two narrative.

Students are given the information and ideas for their writing in Qu 1. They do not have to be particularly interesting, creative or have any general knowledge. For Qu 2 there is no specific form or audience given, so they can't make mistakes there.

We got scripts back and clearly this paper is marked negatively. EVERY mistake was circled. Your students need to be VERY accurate writers to do well on this paper. No comma splices, fragments, rogue apostrophes or spelling mistakes!


They have to complete 3 pieces of writing - one informative / persuasive piece, one narrative / descriptive, and one in response to an article they have read.

It's coursework, you know the benefits: they can redraft it (once), they can word process it, and they can check their spelling and grammar. If you do the coursework before the exam entries are done, you can put any students with incomplete or substandard folders in for the exam instead (no, you can't enter them for both).

The standard required for a pass is very high. Much higher than for the exam as they take into consideration that students have access to IT and should proofread their work.

The proof of the pudding...

Well, we won't know if this was the right decision until August. What we found from November was that, compared to AQA (and for our students), the S&L is of a similar standard, the Reading component is a LOT easier, the Writing component is a LOT harder.

A typical AQA C/D grade student got C/D in the S&L, a C on the Core paper, and a D/E on the writing. But we did do it with only a 4 week run up! Hopefully this time they will be better prepared (plus they are doing the Extended paper in the hope that better reading marks will make up for the inaccuracies in their writing).

So, should you go for it?

I'm very much still on the fence. It still has S&L, which is important. I like the focus on accurate writing, despite our students struggling with it. I really don't like the extremely narrow range of reading (and skills) required.

Have you also noticed there is no requirement for analytical essay writing? You may want to consider how that will prepare your students for the demands of A level.

Finally, a lover of Literature, I hate to see it get such a raw deal. Students will only study prose fiction, poetry and drama (including Shakespeare) when they do Literature. Whilst we still have the ridiculous loophole that you don't have to pass it, just be entered, some students will not even be taught the set texts. As long as they write a paragraph for cwk, and turn up to the exams and write their name, it validates their English qualification. If you are under pressure to improve English, then sacrificing Literature is one way to go about it, but that is surely going to leave a nasty taste in most English teachers' mouths.